Habit and style

Surendra Thami | January 17, 2013

On the first Sunday afternoon of February he announced to his friends that he would not be seeing any of them over the week beginning the next Sunday. ‘Also, please try to limit your phone calls,’ he said. Nobody really cared much for his announcement.

On the Wednesday of the same week he shopped for dry food and plenty of canned drinks and a few periodicals and street-literature, as he euphemistically called his supply of pornographic materials. On Thursday he left a posting at a website he frequented and was well known at under a ridiculous alias. ‘I will be gone for a week,’ the posting read.
Nobody replied to that thread.

He smiled at all the friends, acquaintances and strangers he encountered through Friday. He taped a message by the doorbell that said — ‘out of order’.

In the evening he took an ordinary thin book into his apartment and closed the door behind him with a ceremonious caution. Nobody saw him do that.

He also wrote to a girl very far away — someone he had known once and refused to let go of. He told her — ‘what a writer really wants for himself is a habit and a style. I can’t just sit around and wait for it to come to me.’

As he cleared his writing desk of the oddities that cluttered the desktop, he wondered if she even checked her email anymore. He wondered if she instinctively delayed a reply to him, so as to discourage further correspondence. The thought saddened his heart and he sat on the floor, into a corner, and stared into the corner diagonally opposite to him.

That was the farthest he could look in the room. He knew that from geometry. So he looked at the corner that was the farthest from the corner he cowered into, because the sadness that burdened his heart made him look far off into the distance.

‘A habit and a style,’ he wrote on a piece of paper and taped it to the desk. That was what he sought. He was a serious man now, for a habit and a style.

But soon the weight of such a lofty proclamation wearied him. His spirit was like green bamboo, he thought — it swayed, gave considerably without breaking, and without fail kept righting itself up.

So he disappeared into his apartment on Friday evening. He was not seen in any of the regular places one would normally expect to find him at. Very few people actually interacted with him, and he was very easily wiped out of the short-term memory of the world. No one inquired about him Friday evening through Sunday, so he didn’t even exist in that interim.

Someone from somewhere knocked on his door and broke the silence on Monday morning. The two days of quiet had made him very uneasy already. There was anxiety simmering in his chest. He had even been having the recurring dream those past nights.

He had once wanted to put the dream in words, but was afraid to write it down on paper because the permanence of the images that the written words implied was unnerving. He would be more comfortable talking about it to somebody. A friend, preferably. It would be a sad day if he had to pay someone to listen to him.

He would have talked despite his resolution to himself to the contrary. Not a drawn-out conversation, but just a few words — perhaps just the bare essential words involved in a social ritual of greeting. Just to let a few words bounce off the walls and the furniture and scare the grumpy ghost of a silence that was brooding in the apartment. But that someone from somewhere realized the error, and walked off before he could reach the door. There was nothing familiar about the footfalls, and he never heard a voice. He couldn’t tell who it had been.

The rest of Monday was quiet. The television hummed like a naturally present drone.

He did not count listening to the television as breaking the silence, just as he did not count the act of listening to the cicadas as one. But he dropped this notion around mid-afternoon on Monday, and started to consciously ignore the sound from the television. He still hadn’t written a single coherent paragraph, although he had filled more than half of the first notepad on his desk with abandoned sentences and phrases, names and addresses of fictitious people, the eating habits of horses and ants and a ridiculous, badly strung together ballad to be sung by a frog in a children’s story. There was also a page reserved exclusively for figures. Numerous human heads in hurried strokes.

Around two am on Tuesday morning he sought out a small bud of ganja that he had ‘thrown away’ a couple of weeks before, and smoked it. Only then did he find the patience to sit at his desk or in a corner for hours. But that didn’t help his writing much either.

He was sitting at his desk late into Tuesday morning when she knocked on the door.

He had heard her footfalls and known of her arrival. First, he was afraid that he had materialized this visit by thinking too often of her.

Then he was angry at himself that he couldn’t admit that she might have enough affection for him to be concerned. But he made her wait by the door and knock a couple of times more, all the same.

She knocked softly first. He deduced that she imagined he was sleeping and took caution to not startle him awake. Then she knocked louder — not violently, but just loud enough to qualify as loud. He deduced that it had now dawned upon her that he was actually awake and ignoring the knocks. He expected her to knock louder — even violently, perhaps. She did knock louder eventually, but not violently. He was disappointed. He did not respond.

She called his name. He closed his eyes and listened to his name being spoken by her lips. He strained to remember her voice — the pitch, the lull in it, the pain, the way it rose and fell with the syllables. He then tried to imagine in his mind her next call to him, anticipating his name on her lips — a little different every time. A novel pleasure it was to him — his name on her lips.

But he still did not respond.

Then she beat on the door with the flat of her palm. The knuckles knock a civil rap, but the palm slaps much too urgently. It has too many connotations. He had to respond. He went by the door and said in a raspy voice, ‘Hey!’

It was as if the room had spoken unexpectedly. He wondered if it sounded to her too as if the room had spoken. He deduced that it wouldn’t sound to her as if the room had spoken. But he remembered nothing of the train of arguments and evidences that had led him to this deduction.

He asked her if she was well. She said, ‘Yes. And you?’ It was a terse reply, but it was not entirely impersonal or unfeeling. Perhaps his three days of silence also weighed on her mind — somewhere in the subconscious, if there is anything of that sort.

She asked him if there was any reason why he was doing this. He thought about telling her of the habit and a style jargon, but immediately decided against it. The only reason he had told the girl who was very far off was that she was very far off and probably wouldn’t even check her email to pose awkward questions before him.

He asked her to repeat what she had been saying as he hadn’t been paying any attention. He meant that in earnest — a train of thought had kidnapped him to a distant expanse, and suddenly returning to the door, he had forgotten what the conversation had been about.

There was a silence that could be aptly called an uneasy one. He was very sure, later as he reflected upon the day, that it had been an uneasy silence; and he noted it in his yellow notepad. Outside the door, she turned sharply around and walked away in long deliberate strides. This he could tell from her footfalls. Then he imagined her hair and the curve of her neck and her buttocks and her legs as they fell hard on the floor with each stride, and a picture was complete in his mind.

He thought about that picture for a good half hour, he was filled alternately with amusement and an aching that he placed a couple of inches to the right of his heart. When he thought of how a dull sadness ached in him, he sighed and touched that spot. The physical act of touching a spot and the sound of his sigh gave his ache a tangible quality, and that was very convenient.

He still hadn’t written much, but that had become a secondary concern now.

He paced about the room for the rest of Tuesday. He even coughed loudly enough to be heard outside his door. He even considered humming a strain but couldn’t decide upon one. Some were too frivolous and that would have been lying to himself, others were too sombre and that would have been lying to whoever happened to listen to it. In any case, he was a bad singer.

On Tuesday evening he also tired of the food he had with him. He craved for something hot and full of flavour. He sat and tried to recount all the fine meals he had eaten since the earliest that he could recall. But that didn’t work too well. So he decided to think of all the meals he recalled for whatever reasons. He tired of that after a couple of hours.

That night he tossed on his bed. He suspected that he might have even spoken in his dream. But there was no one who could verify his suspicion. If ever he did speak in his dream, there was no way he could hear of it from anyone. His thoughts depressed him for an hour, before he found the two amusing designs on the rug by the writing desk.

He woke up late on Wednesday afternoon. He had had a rather sleepless night when he hadn’t been sleeping a troubled sleep. He had had to get out of his bed numerous times in the night to drink water. Twice, he also masturbated when he went to the bathroom to urinate. Perhaps that was the reason why he slept till late. He also woke up a very tired man with bloodshot eyes and very bad breath that disgusted him.

He stayed in bed and wished Wednesday was over already. Of course, he had to wait till midnight to actually and totally get rid of Wednesday. But his efforts amounted to nothing in reality — since he walked wide awake into Thursday and since he closed his eyes only when the windowpanes assumed a life of their own, he had failed to escape that which plagued him.

He was not fond of sleeping through a day — especially if it was very bright outside, and the room couldn’t be made dark no matter how hard he tried. But he wasn’t used to staying awake through a night, and it took its toll on him. Through the day, he kept waking up to the sounds of life outside his apartment and he kept slipping back into sleep.

She came back on Thursday afternoon. She stood outside his door. He crept to the door quietly and listened to her with his entire body, straining to picture her outside his door.

She stood there motionless for quite a long time. He crept away from the door and cleared his throat when he was at a sufficient distance. She promptly knocked, softly, in measured raps. He dragged his feet to the door, so that his footfalls made the distinctive sound of his walk. Or so he thought. She knocked again, which told him that she’d heard his footfalls.

And that was all the response he was looking for.

But he shouldn’t have spoken those words to his mind, for the moment the words dawned upon his mind, he shrank away from the door, which he would have instinctively opened otherwise. If her response was all that mattered he shouldn’t do anything more.

Anything that she would do would be life unfolding its mysterious petals before him. And that was a question in a different realm altogether. So he did not answer, even when demons tugged at his heart from various sides and vied for his favour. He soon cheated on himself and shuffled around, which prompted her to knock on the door. He felt guilty about having cheated on himself, but it took him only a while before he rationalized that to himself (he was very good at that), and sat by the desk.

She went away. He imagined that he heard her sigh. He wasn’t sure, though. He thought it could have easily been himself, because he remembered that he felt something ache in that very convenient spot on the chest as her footfalls faded away, and he might have very easily sighed as he unconsciously touched that very convenient spot on the chest.

Late on Thursday afternoon, someone brought him his mail. It was from the bank, and therefore of no significance. He knew his account by heart, and he knew of his spending by heart too, for there wasn’t much of either. He pondered about whether he should read the mail, as the person who brought it had made no attempt to establish communication. He decided against it eventually. But he couldn’t simply leave the envelope at the door either.

Picking it up and putting it away would be in violation of his silence, he had concluded. That was out of question, then. He decided to firmly tape it to the floor, as it sat under the door.
He realized that he had been neglecting his hygiene. He also realized that he was unkempt and could use a shave. But that, he decided, was not strictly necessary.

He waited for Friday. More people are remembered on Fridays. The phone rang five times on Friday. It actually rang more than five times, but he had deduced something from the times of the day the phone rang, and proclaimed that he had received calls from five individuals.

The phone rang late in the night — so late that he was sure the caller was intoxicated, as he knew all of his friends and acquaintances were generally very intoxicated at that time in the week. He wondered if it could have been her. He would have liked it to have been her. But he could offer himself no concrete evidence regarding the identity of the late caller. He would have really liked it to be her, though. The phone rang once, around three in the afternoon, and someone tugged at the envelope but gave up immediately. That was Saturday.

On Sunday morning he opened the letter and tossed it aside. He brushed his teeth with extra vigour, as if to cleanse his mouth of the silence that he had been indulging in for a week, as if to wake the spirits in his tongue into making beautiful words. He shaved and admired himself in the mirror.

He stepped out cautiously and closed the door behind him. Nobody saw him do that.

Three individuals stopped to talk to him in the morning. He had forgotten the names of two of them, and at least one, he suspected, had mistaken him for somebody else, but politely played along the civil game when it was too late to admit to the error.

He was watching a few children from the neighbourhood play with a broken bicycle wheel when she sneaked up to him and stood with her shoulders touching his. He wanted to take her hand, but she had her hands buried in her pockets. He smiled at her, but did not say anything. He did not want to break the silence between them with mundane, dry words, and he had nothing worthwhile to say.

She pinched his arm, and she pinched it really hard. He looked at her face and saw that she was more pained than he was. He even suspected that her eyes had grown moist. But when he tried to search her eyes, she turned her head away. He thought she sighed, but he had been too busy trying to search her eyes for him to be absolutely certain.

He was still searching for words, watching the games the children played, and trying to find something innocent and pleasant about them to say to her when he realized that she had sneaked off just as she had come.

The new silence that he did not ask for sat heavy on his heart, and he touched that conveniently placed spot on his chest.

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